Feel-Good Story of the Day

It's a departure from what we normally write about, but this story is too heartwarming not to link to.

Avian Flu Spreads to Africa

The WHO recently confirmed that the avian flue had migrated to Africa, and called on countries in the region to take emergency measures to prevent the flu's spread outside of Nigeria. The continent, which is dependent on backyard poultry, can hardly afford the onset of avian flue, and there is no infrastructure to deal with the problem. Veterinary care is meager, barefooted children play with sick poultry, testing is limited and backyard chickens have access to wild birds, increasing the risk of contamination. It's an uphill battle to convince African farmers to kill their chickens, and according to the chairman of Nigeria's local poultry farmers association, Alhaji Aruna , farmers are more likely hide their poultry and turn to the black market than quarantine their animals.

More Iraqi Journalists Targeted

Three Iraqi journalists were found dead today in a remote area north of Bagdad. One of the victims, Atwar Bahjat, was a prominent reporter for Al-Arabiya television, and was the seventh woman journalist killed since the beginning of the Iraq war. She and two colleagues were reporting live from the edge of Samarra, on the bombing at the Shiite shrine when two gunmen approached screaming, "We want the correspondent!" The three were kidnapped, and their bodies found bullet ridden and abandoned six miles north of where they were originally abducted.

President Bush recently called for a "doubling" of peacekeeping forces in Darfur, as well as NATO intervention, to stop the ongoing genocide there. But it's not at all clear where the troops are going to come from—Bush administration officials have ruled out sending U.S. troops, and Europe has certainly shown no real interest in sending its people to fight in Africa. (Darfur isn't really an issue among civil society groups in most European countries, apart from Britain, sort of, and there's no real pressure to act.)

The guess is that nothing will come of Bush's proposal. When pressed for specifics, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack recently said: "It's really premature to speculate about what the needs would be in terms of logistics, in terms of airlift, in terms of actual troops. And certainly in that regard, premature to speculate on what the US contribution might be." Oh? Pray tell, when won't it be premature to speculate? A year from now? Two years? When everybody's dead?

The New York Times has a good article today on how the question of whether a Dubai-controlled company is allowed to operate a few ports or not is really the least of our port security issues:

The administration's core problem at the ports, most experts agree, is how long it has taken for the federal government to set and enforce new security standards — and to provide the technology to look inside millions of containers that flow through them.

Only 4 percent or 5 percent of those containers are inspected. There is virtually no standard for how containers are sealed, or for certifying the identities of thousands of drivers who enter and leave the ports to pick them up. If a nuclear weapon is put inside a container — the real fear here — "it will probably happen when some truck driver is paid off to take a long lunch, before he even gets near a terminal," said Mr. Flynn, the ports security expert….

"I'm not worried about who is running the New York port," a senior inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency said, insisting he could not be named because the agency's work is considered confidential. "I'm worried about what arrives at the New York port." A while back Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard official who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations, had a longer piece in the Far Eastern Economic Review describing just how shaky port security is. Worth reading. And P.J. Crowley of the Center for American Progress did a short piece back in 2004 on how the administration just doesn't take this stuff very seriously at all: "Rather than increasing federal assistance in the face of new security requirements, the Bush administration's port security grant request is actually a huge reduction from the still inadequate total of $500 million allocated for port security in the first three years of the Bush administration."

The American Civil Liberties Union has released documents that prove that top Department of Defense officials endorsed interrogation methods at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp that the FBI described as both abusive and illegal.

"We now possess overwhelming evidence that political and military leaders endorsed interrogation methods that violate both domestic and international law," said Jameel Jaffer, an attorney with the ACLU. "It is entirely unacceptable that no senior official has been held accountable."

A memo written in 2003 names Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, former Commander of Joint Task Force--Guantanamo, as favoring interrogation techniques that the FBI said "could easily result in the elicitation of unreliable and legally inadmissible information." That memo also indicates that FBI personnel brought their concerns to senior Department of Defense officials, but those concerns were ignored.

A few days ago, The New Yorker released a memo from Alberto Mora, outgoing General Counsel of the U.S. Navy, which describes his unsuccessful efforts in 2002 and 2003 to convince the Pentagon to renounce the prisoner abuse at Guantanamo. One of the people he had trouble convincing was his boss, William J. Haynes II, General Counsel of the Department of Defense.

At one point, however, Haynes did take Mora's concerns to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who responded by joking that he himself often stood for eight hours a day. "Torture? That's not torture!" One of his staff members reminded him that he had the option to sit down whenever he chose.

Activist Laurel Hester Dies

Laurel Hester, the New Jersey police lieutenant who fought for the right to leave her pension to her longtime domestic partner Stacie Andree, succumbed to lung cancer on Sunday. Hester, a 23 year investigator, made headlines last month when she pressed city officials in Ocean County, New Jersey to pass a domestic partnership resolution provided for by the Domestic Partnership Act which "gives counties and cities the power to extend pension and health care benefits to the gay partners of employees if they so choose."

Following several months of heated debate and wavering, the Ocean County freeholders eventually reversed their original decision on January 25th, granting police and fire department employees the freedom to designate their own pension beneficiaries. Thanking freeholders, and present despite the advice of her medical team, Hester told them "you have made yourselves an example of what democracy is all about." Laurel Hester certainly did not intend to become an activist, but she nonetheless became a hero in the fight for equality.

The ethnic cleansing in Darfur has gone on since 2003, forcing two million people to abandon their homes and seek refuge in neighboring countries. As the violence rages, tens of thousands of displaced citizens have taken refuge in bordering Chad, and bringing with them the threat of insurgency. According to a new Human Rights Watch report, Chadian rebel groups have support from the Sudanese government to launch aggressive attacks in Eastern Chad.

The report, Darfur Bleeds: Recent Cross-Border Violence in Chad, is based on investigations conducted over the last two months in response to the spillover conflict that is now destroying neighboring Chad. 30,000 Chadians have abandoned their homes along the Chad/Sudan border in response to recent attacks, which include the mass destruction of villages, killing civilians and looting cattle, all apparently carried out in according with ethnic motives.

Swopa rounds up evidence—okay, more like the barest of hints—that the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra yesterday may have been the work of militant Shiites looking to provoke some serious sectarian warfare. It's not impossible, I guess. And it certainly appears to be working, with Shiites and Sunnis battling it out all across the country. Quite obviously a lot of different groups in Iraq have a lot of different motives for edging the country closer to civil war, and it seems like that will only become increasingly easier to do as time goes on.

Meanwhile, it was only a few days ago that Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad threatened to withdraw aid from the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government if it insisted on engaging in sectarian warfare with the Sunnis. And now top Shiite leaders are blaming Khalilzad for encouraging the insurgents with that statement all while… engaging in sectarian warfare. So what will the U.S. do? President Bush sounds like he's planning to back the Shiite government and oppose the "terrorists" while calling for "restraint" on all sides. But this doesn't seem like the sort of thing you can really finesse in this way. Juan Cole says this is an "apocalyptic day." Very bad.

Kevin Drum says he doesn't see why the sale of operations of six American ports to Dubai Ports World, a shipping company owned by the United Arab Emirates, is such a scandal. After all, the company wouldn't even be handling port security in those ports; the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Security would. Plus, over 30 percent of this country's port terminals are already operated by foreign companies anyway. And DPW already does this sort of thing in ports all over the world, and other countries seem okay with that. Okay, I'll buy all that.

But The Nation's John Nichols, meanwhile, asks an interesting question: Why are ports run by corporations at all? Shouldn't this sort of vital national infrastructure be operated and run by the government? Well, my understanding here is that ports are run by the government, mostly: port operations (i.e., moving ships in and out of terminals) are handled by corporations, true, but the regulatory apparatus (i.e., security, customs, licensing, etc.) is handled by the state, and all major U.S. ports are owned by public port authorities, which oversee development, construction, port policies, etc.